LA Area Outages Highlight Internal FAA Rift

Oct. 3, 2006
Technicians argue that a decade-old shift in the FAA's maintenance philosophy is partly to blame for outages in Southern California this summer.

When a string of air traffic control equipment malfunctions repeatedly disrupted air service in Southern California this summer, congressional leaders and airport executives questioned whether systemic problems were to blame.

The failures, which occurred in July at a Palmdale facility that handles the region's high-altitude traffic and in July and August at Los Angeles International Airport, cost airlines hundreds of thousands of dollars and inconvenienced passengers around the world.

The outages prompted a federal inquiry by the U.S. Department of Transportation's inspector general. The Federal Aviation Administration, which operates the nation's air traffic control network, says it has turned over documents pertaining to the failures to the inspector general.

As the inquiry continues, Times interviews with technicians who work on the systems, controllers who use them and FAA management revealed a deepening internal quarrel about how the complex equipment should be maintained.

Technicians argue that a decade-old shift in the FAA's maintenance philosophy is partly to blame for outages in Southern California this summer. Formerly, the agency would allow technicians to spend time getting familiar with systems, so when something went wrong, they spotted it quickly. Today, the agency employs an approach that allows it to cut staff by relying in part on remote monitoring and on-call technicians, and to lengthen maintenance intervals, technicians say.

FAA officials say staffing and maintenance were not factors. Rather, the problems were caused by technical glitches in each system and are in no way linked to one another, they said.

"It was a remarkable piece of bad luck that we had these things fail for different reasons," FAA Administrator Marion Blakey said in a telephone interview. "All you can do is focus intently to address each and every one of them. It's not as though this points to a bigger problem."

The system outages in Southern California reflect a growing debate about how well the FAA is balancing modernizing the nation's aging air traffic control network with maintaining sensitive equipment used to direct thousands of flights a day through the country's airspace -- all with dwindling appropriations from Congress.

"There's so much pressure on them to show that they're modernizing the system to increase capacity that they're marginalizing the importance of keeping the infrastructure they have now," said Ray Baggett, Western region vice president for Professional Airways Systems Specialists, the union that represents FAA technicians.

The testy relationship between the FAA and its technicians is likely to be strained further in the next few years as the agency makes crucial decisions about whether to keep its existing system or buy new equipment, said John Hensman, an aeronautics and astronautics professor and director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's International Center for Air Transportation.

"There are two cultures in the FAA -- the guys in the Air Traffic Organization who are trying to make it operate more like a business," Hensman said. "And the guys at the maintenance level, who pride themselves on the service they provide. They don't really care about the business case."

The divergence of opinion within the FAA about how air traffic control equipment is being maintained comes into sharp focus with a review of the summer's most disruptive glitch in Southern California. It occurred July 18, when a backup power system at the Los Angeles Air Route Traffic Control Center in Palmdale failed, leaving controllers briefly unable to track aircraft or talk to pilots.

The outage, which affected airports across the Southland and delayed 348 flights, was caused by a faulty circuit board in a system that acts as a surge protector to protect sensitive equipment from power spikes.

Technicians say they had had to postpone maintenance on the backup power equipment because only one specialist was on duty when two were required to disassemble the complex unit.

"It does take us longer to do the maintenance because of the lack of staffing," said Tony Gilmore, a technician and union representative at the Palmdale center, which handles high-altitude flights over Southern California and much of Nevada and Arizona.

But detailed maintenance logs do not show preventive maintenance was deferred, said Steven Zaidman, vice president of technical operations at the FAA's Air Traffic Organization.

Technicians also allege the backup power system, known as the Air Route Traffic Control Center Critical and Essential Power Systems, failed in part because the FAA ordered them to remove one of five switches in the surge protection system to save money.

The FAA disagreed, saying that no matter how many switches were in place, the power load caused by the faulty circuit board was so great it would have blown them all. Zaidman acknowledged that the agency did ask technicians to remove a switch, saying the backup system was "over-designed" and that multiple switches were unnecessary.

The agency has replaced the circuit board in Palmdale and at other facilities across the country. It says its investigation into the incident is continuing while it works to develop a long-term plan to make the system better able to withstand power surges.

A second air traffic control system problem surfaced July 24 in the LAX tower when radar that alerts controllers to close calls gave off a false alarm, prompting them to turn off the equipment's aural alert. Two days later, a turboprop taking off on the airport's south side narrowly missed a regional jet that had strayed onto its runway.

An FAA investigation classified the July 26 incident involving a SkyWest Airlines turboprop and a Mesa Air regional jet as the closest call on the ground at LAX since 2004. FAA officials said that even if the aural alert on the Airport Movement Area Surveillance System had been activated, the controller had warned the SkyWest pilot about the plane on his runway before the alarm would have sounded.

The aural alert on the system was disabled for five days until technicians determined the alarm had been false, according to a letter from FAA Administrator Blakey to Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). Boxer called for a federal investigation of the multiple air traffic system problems in Southern California.

Technicians turned the ground radar back on July 29 and waited for a software patch from Oklahoma City to fix the problem. False alarms occur, on average, once a month at LAX, said Chet Roher, a technician and union representative.

Since it was introduced at several dozen airports nationwide in the late 1990s, the system has been prone to false alerts and has been criticized by independent safety investigators, who have called for a system that would warn pilots of approaching aircraft on the ground.

A third Southern California air traffic control system failed five times in July and August.

What caused a key landing system on the south side of the LAX airfield to repeatedly malfunction confounded technicians for weeks.

Today, the system, which helps pilots land on foggy days, appears to be working after multiple repairs, including the replacement of a failed card, a power supply and monitor cables, the inspection and cleaning of antennas, and additional grounding, Blakey wrote to Boxer.

Technicians say short staffing at LAX prolonged an Aug. 8 outage. Roher said he was unable to respond to calls for assistance on the airfield because he was in the LAX tower working to rectify a problem with another system.

Again, FAA officials disagree. They say they are satisfied the agency has enough technicians to do the job at LAX. As a precaution, the agency has stationed a technician at the airport to watch the landing system full time while construction continues on the south side of the airfield. The agency also asked LAX officials to keep construction vehicles away from the system.

It is unclear whether construction vehicles hauling dirt and concrete around the airfield contributed to the system outages, FAA official Zaidman said.

The debate between FAA executives and their technicians extends even to maintenance techniques.

The executives liken the instrument landing system's reliability to that of a microwave oven or a computer hard drive, noting that those do not require preventive maintenance.

But Roher, the technician, countered that the system "is not an appliance you buy from Home Depot. The level of complexity is not even comparable, and the level of maintenance is a lot more comprehensive than you would give to your microwave oven."


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